Last month’s IDEAS On blog topic was “Improvisation,” and I shared how once-upon-a-previous-lifetime I embraced improv while writing and performing in a sketch comedy group. This month’s blog topic, “Learnings from Live Performance,” allows me to share another memorable chapter in my life journey and professional progression toward joining IDEAS…my time as a singer in a rock and roll band.
Starting in the early 1980’s in Rochester (NY), a bunch of part-time musicians swapped their briefcases by day for guitar cases at night and took to the stage to raise money for charities at local shows and weekend festivals. Eventually, Nik & the Nice Guys began to transition into a professional stable of performers traveling around the world playing at major sporting events and corporate gigs. When I joined the band in 1989, the group already had its own unique blend of Saturday Night Live antics and party bravado. We wore sports jerseys on stage and MLB favorite Bob Uecker referred to us as the “Kings of Jock & Roll,” and so we enjoyed a long-time affiliation with pro sports teams, major/minor leagues, and plenty of corporate sponsors. We played a wide range of rock hits and R&B standards with big show value, live horns, and lots of humor to get the audience going. Ten years later, I moved south to Orlando to start working at Disney IDEAS, a business unit at Walt Disney World. Thus, began my ongoing tenure with our IDEAS family. Nik & the Nice Guys (the band) grew into Nik Entertainment (the company) with a juggernaut roster of dozens of musicians fielding multiple-themed bands and playing several hundred shows a year. It’s still going strong (current CV-19 impact excluded). See for yourself at www.nikentertainment.com.
I approached this new band experience from my previous background as a sketch comedy writer and performer. To me, the singing and musicianship was secondary – let the people with the instruments worry about that; what mattered most in my mind was the SHOW! This was the all-important total sum of what happened on stage: how we played to and with the audience, how we wove the night’s theme throughout the show, and how we created magical odd moments that made every gig different and fresh. Everyone – the singers, musicians, dancers, tech crew, road crew, stage managers, sound man, and even the bus driver – had an unwavering commitment to entertain with no limits or inhibitions. So, from this non-musical, technically clueless, and unabashedly cover band perspective, I share the following lessons learned during my years as a live performer with the Ultimate Party Band.
#1 – Have a good time, all of the time. (Credit: Spinal Tap)
When the band is having a blast on stage and out with the audience, it’s hard to mess up the gig. Irreverence and ingenuity fuels great moments that audiences remember forever. Take the summer our horn section (the Niktones) set up a margarita station on stage to enjoy a handy cocktail during those shows as well as add some percussive blender-in-action nuance when one of the girls sang a slow song (fanny grabber). This kind of rollicking anything-goes attitude can also spark a long-term affinity and lucrative relationship with a booking agent or client. We once stole a bar cart full of beer after a Lee Jeans party in Orlando at the Hyatt Grand Regency and sneaked it across the lobby to hit the closed hot tub at 2am with the clients in tow. They still talk about that night. Or the time one of the singers “assisted” the flight attendant and pantomimed our inflight safety briefing from the front of the plane on a puddle jumper off to Maui (pre 9/11) to the raucous enjoyment of the passengers, one of whom ended up hiring us for a big gig the next year. Abundant frivolity and endless daring do make for spontaneously genuine connections that last long after the road cases are back on the truck. Fun people get to do fun things.
#2 – It’s always better to ask forgiveness than permission. (Credit – Rear Admiral Grace Hopper via Jumpin’ Jim Kerins)
Lulu’s in Kitchener, Ontario (a former K-Mart) holds the record for the world’s longest bar at 333ft. Dressed up as the Blues Brothers, we jumped up on the bar while singing “Hey Bartender.” I made my way singing and stepping around many a beer bottle winding up at the far end of the bar as the song ended and the spotlight swung back toward the stage. A bouncer held up his arms to help catch my fall as I jumped off the bar with a wave to the crowd. As he slowly squeezed the air out of my lungs, he said into my ear “Don’t ever do that again. If you do it, they’ll do it.” Fair point. But the photo of us on top of the bar in the morning paper drove the door for the rest of the weekend and was the talk of the town. Another time, we were in Atlanta underneath the Georgia Dome stadium playing a pre-game party at the Bills 4th Super Bowl appearance (SB XXVIII). We usually started shows with me welcoming everyone, saying a few words about the event’s sponsor, then kicking off the first set. However, this time I could see how anxious and uncertain many of the Bills fans at the show were, so I told our drummer, Jim Kerins, that I’d cue him when to count off the first song. I then channeled my best inner pastor and went off on a 10-minute fire and brimstone sermon recalling all the many challenges and obstacles the Bills had overcome since their founding in 1960. With each recollection, I asked if I could get a “Go Bills” from the crowd. At first, they were a bit tepid, but as my litany of Bills memories grew, so did their refrain until it had built into a thunderous crescendo. The crowd was lit, the band was ready, and we rocked a great pre-game party. Shame the day didn’t end the way we wanted, but it started off fantastic. Our boss and original Nice Guy, Gary Webb, even gave me his ticket to the game to see some of the 1st half. If I had asked to do it, odds are that moment would have never happened. Take the risk and explain later.
#3 – Act like you belong. (No credit, just truth)
We were playing at a big anniversary party for the Toronto Star newspaper with the band, Bare Naked Ladies. Since we did lots of shows in southern Ontario, they knew about Nik. Since they were a great band signed to a major label with hits, we obviously knew about them. What we didn’t know was how much fun we’d all have together that night. We opened for them (duh!), but they hung out backstage singing and dancing to what we were playing laughing along with the audience. We did the same having a blast watching their show. The night went on and ended up with them skinny dipping in the hotel pool with us after the show. Can’t tell you the number of times that by just playing it cool and acting like we belonged paid off in our being able to hang with much bigger acts, chat up celebrities, and do interesting things like sing the national anthems at MLB, NHL, and NFL games – GO BILLS!!! Likewise, when talking to the crowd, making THEM feel like they belong is just as important. Not with silly rock’n’roll schtick, but in relating to them, their town, their celebration, their evening out. Once you make that connection with them, they’ll pretty much do anything and go anywhere with you. That’s when things get really fun. You’d be surprised what you can get away with in front of thousands of people if they’re on your side and trust you have their best interests at heart. Nobody would dare go up on stage and act silly if they thought you were going to make fun of them. But cheer them on and let them be the star on stage in front of their friends, and you own the room. Relationships seal the deal, grease the wheel, and make good things happen.
#4 – Go with the flow.
There were many shows when we were the house band instead of the featured act. At highbrow events like Super Bowls or the Olympics, about halfway into the show athletes, actors, and celebrities would want to come up on stage to sing a song or goof around with the band. Other times we’d be the house band on TV with Bob Uecker or Jimmy Valvano on their sports blooper shows. You never knew what was going to happen…like Dr J (Julius Irving) playing air guitar, Kelsey Grammar faking a keyboard solo, Chris “Boomer” Berman wanting to sing, Clarence Clemmons forgetting what key his own song was in and passing off his sax solo to our guy, or Wayne Gretzky just wanting to hold a tambourine whenever he was up on stage. This kind of chaos can be truly magical – especially when the audience is in on it. Then there was the time we were in Munich doing a weird one-off show where during soundcheck the stage was literally bouncing when we walked across it. We figured the staging company’s lack of concern was due to the language barrier. But when we showed up ready to start the show that evening and there was no stage at all – meaning that all the gear was gone – we discovered the reason it was bouncing during soundcheck was because they had hoisted it up in the air for a BMX bike demonstration! Like I said, weird show. Once the bikes were gone, the stage lowered and securely locked into place. No worries. On with the show! Whenever things devolve from what was planned according to the setlist into a good-natured frenzy of ad-libbing and audibles, that’s when the audience knows this is something special, and they’re quick to show their appreciation. Letting go of what was planned and polished can often result in discovering something even better and more entertaining.
#5 – There’s always a bigger fish.
Some big shows like the BNL gig in Toronto we would be the opening act. Other times the headliner would go first right after the fancy sit down dinner, and then we’d start up and play well past midnight for all the partiers. One of those was for American Express at the Dolphin Hotel in Walt Disney World. The big-name act was a famous Broadway singe/movie star who shall remain nameless, and yes, she opened for Nik and the Nice Guys. While we were waiting for her to complete her sound check so we could start ours, the event planner made a comment about how difficult she was being. Evidently, the suite her two dogs were staying in upstairs on the concierge floor of the hotel did not have a nice enough view of EPCOT. Mind you, this is not her suite, it’s her dogs’ suite. So, the hotel had to relocate a high-level Amex executive and spouse to another room so this famous singer’s dogs could have a better view of the theme park. Imagine being that Exec Senior VP of Whatever all excited with their spouse in a fancy Disney hotel suite getting ready to see a big star that night at the company party, only to have to pack up their stuff and swap rooms with her dogs. Another time we stayed in Boston after a downtown show so we could be in the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade the next day. Once the tour bus was lined up for the parade and we had our instruments ready to walk and play along the route, we stepped into a bar to have a beer. A guy next to us at the bar joined in, and we had a good number of laughs telling band stories from the road. When time came ‘round to head out, we told him we were in the parade and had to go. He said, “Me too, I’m the mayor” as he pulled his sash out from his coat pocket. No matter how big you are, there’s always gonna be someone who’s bigger.
#6 – Know when not to play.
OK, so technically this could also be a musical tip, but play has another meaning here as well. All-time-great Nik friend and hall-of-fame party expert, Harry Quadracci and Quad/Graphics founder, threw a college graduation party for his son in Saratoga Springs. While we were playing in his backyard, the police were called to serve a noise complaint. Harry had all the requisite permits and permissions to hold the party, but this particular house call had the smell of local politics and got Harry pretty heated up. The police shut us down mid-song. We were just standing around on stage while Harry is talking to the police, and a few hundred people are wondering what’s going on. So, I decided to provide some play-by-play call of the action. Things got really interesting when the police put Harry (kindly rich man who owns the big printing plant in town) in handcuffs and led him to the squad car. Unknown to me as I continued the color commentary, a police officer was on his way to the stage to cuff me as well, but our soundman muted my mic just in time. After Harry was taken away to the station, we played one last song then piled into the tour bus with his family and friends to head downtown to the precinct to protest and show our support for Harry. We walked in just as he was getting booked and started playing “Jailhouse Rock” out in the lobby. Now released on his own recognizance, Harry stepped out of the booking room to see his family, friends, and us in our jerseys cheering him in song. He never forgot that moment, and he and his family and company continued to have a long friendship with the band. Again, relationships matter, but ya also gotta know when not to play.
In summary, we drank a lot of beer, broke a bunch of rules, partied hard with lots of people, made even more people laugh and have a good time as we put on some pretty damn fine shows. Not sure if I’d call them “lessons,” but advice certainly worth remembering. And yes, that is me singing while wearing peanut butter, but that’s another story.